Elizabeth Rata: The Decolonisation of Education in New Zealand

Elizabeth Rata: The Decolonisation of Education in New Zealand

The Ministry of Education is currently attempting to decolonise the New Zealand schooling system, using some radical innovations. In this article, Prof Elizabeth Rata challenges some of the ideological underpinnings and practical outcomes of this agenda. Prof Rata welcomes debate on this issue, and the Democracy Project welcomes further submissions of articles on the topic.

Revolutionary moves to decolonise mainstream education are outlined in two Ministry of Education documents.

‘Te Hurihanganui  A Blueprint for Transformative Systems Shift’ confidently asserts that ‘through decolonisation of the education system Māori potential will be realised’ while the Curriculum Refresh also prescribes a hearty dose of the same medicine.

Decolonisation, according to Te Hurihanganui ‘means recognising white privilege, understanding racism, inequity faced by Māori and disrupting that status quo to strengthen equity’. There will be opportunities for an expansion of the decolonisation cadre as ‘Māori exercise authority and agency over their mātauranga, tikanga and taonga’.

The Curriculum Refresh, meanwhile, proposes that ‘knowledge derived from Te Ao Māori will sit at the heart of each learning area, along with other knowledge-systems that reflect the cultural uniqueness of Aotearoa New Zealand.’

Decolonisation is a key strategy of He Puapua’s ethno-nationalism agenda. Political categories based on racial classification are to be inserted into New Zealand’s institutions. In education this means that the universal, secular system set up by the 1877 Education Act will be replaced with a radically different system based on two racial categories – Māori and non-Māori, despite the fact that such categories deny the reality of both New Zealand’s multi-ethnic population and Māori multi-ethnicity. According to 2018 census over 45 percent of those identifying as Māori also identified with two ethnic groups with approximately 7 percent identifying with three ethnic groups. Some Māori families have a parent who does not identify as Māori.

While decolonisation is underway in all the nation’s institutions, education is the key ideological institution. The Curriculum Refresh’s ‘other knowledge-systems’ approach re-defines academic knowledge as just another knowledge-system, rather than what it actually is – the universal knowledge developed across the disciplines and altered for teaching at school.

Destroying confidence in the science – culture distinction, a distinction which is one of the defining features of the modern world, will be decolonisation’s most significant and most dangerous victory. According to the International Science Council science is ‘the systematic organization of knowledge that can be rationally explained and reliably applied. It is inclusive of the natural (including physical, mathematical and life) science and social (including behavioural and economic) science domains . . .  as well as the humanities, medical, health, computer and engineering sciences.

In contrast, culture is the values, beliefs and practices of everyday life – the means by which children are socialised into the family and community. For a Māori child, this may well involve immersion in marae life – or it may not.  But the experiences of everyday life should not be confused with the ideology of cultural indoctrination, what I call culturalism or traditionalism and others call decolonisation. It is this ideology which is permeating the government, universities and research institutes, the Royal Society Te Apārangi, and mainstream media. Here we are presented with an idealised Māori culture of what should be, not what it actually is.

It is as much a moral, quasi-religious project as a political one, its religiosity responsible for the intensity, and perhaps success, of its march through New Zealand’s institutions. Indeed, the spiritual is a central theme in decolonisation. The belief is promoted that Māori are a uniquely spiritual people with a mauri or life force providing the link to their ancestors – the  genetic claim for racial categorisation. Political rights for the kin-group are justified in this claim.

However the evidence does not support an idealised picture of Māori spirituality. According to the 2018 census 53.5 percent of those identifying with Māori ethnicity had no religious affiliation. The number identifying with Māori religious, beliefs and philosophies is small and declining, from about 12 percent in 2006 to 7 percent in 2018. As more Māori enter the professional class it is likely that this trend will continue.

Given that over 50 percent of Māori already have no religious affiliation, it is doubtful that there is a constituency for a spiritual-based education. This is where decolonisation plays its part with Te Hurihanganui and the refreshed curriculum promoting the ideological version of culture. Those hesitant Māori who are suspicious of the ideology will be outed as ‘colonised’, in obvious need of decolonisation.Those who are now racially positioned on the other side, officially the non-Māori, will require decolonisation to ensure support for the new moral and political order. Numerous consultants are already on hand to provide this profitable reprogramming service. Intransigent dissenters, who determinedly refuse the correct thinking will be ostracised as fossilised racists and bigots.

The tragedy is that this decolonising racialised ideology will destroy the foundations of New Zealand’s modern prosperous society. The principles of universalism and secularism are its pillars in education as elsewhere. Academic knowledge is different from cultural knowledge because it is universal and secular. We could certainly live without this knowledge – our ancestors did,  but would we want to?

Academic knowledge is difficult to acquire, not easily derived from experience, and involving abstractions. The formidable task of acquiring even a small amount of humanity’s intellectual canon is made even more complex and remote because abstractions are only available to us as symbols – verbal, alphabetical, numerical, musical, digital, chemical, mathematical – creating two layers of difficulty. While it is unsurprising that the much easier education using practices derived from action rather than abstraction is more attractive, to take this path, as teachers are required to do, is a mistake.

We humans are made intelligent through long-term systematic engagement with such complex knowledge. Yet decolonisers reject the fundamental difference between science and culture claiming instead that all knowledge is culturally produced, informed by a group’s beliefs and experiences, and geared to its interests. Indigenous knowledge and ‘western’ knowledge are simply cultural systems with academic education re-defined as the oppressive imposition of the latter on the former.

What is deeply concerning is the extent to which this ideology is believed by those in education and uncritically repeated in mainstream media. A secondary school principal is quoted describing the ‘dangers of prescribing a powerful knowledge curriculum’. Such an ‘Eurocentric’ approach is ‘a colonial tool of putting old western knowledge ahead of indigenous communities’ rather than an emancipatory knowledge that liberates Westernised, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Islamic, African and indigenous groups.  Elsewhere another teacher goes further, calling educational success ‘white success’ and in opposition to succeeding ‘as Māori’ – which, to follow this logic, would mean not learning English or reading. There can be only one solution in this scenario – replace the oppressor’s knowledge through the comprehensive decolonisation programme now revolutionising New Zealand education.

Decolonisation is not only destructive but simplistic. Although cultural knowledge is not science, the science-culture distinction doesn’t exclude traditional knowledge from the secular curriculum. It does however put limits on how it is included. Students can be taught in social studies, history, and Māori Studies about the traditional knowledge that Te Hurihanganui describes as the “rich and legitimate knowledge located within a Māori worldview’. But this is not induction into belief and ideological systems. The home and community groups are for induction into cultural beliefs and practices.

What about the proto-science (pre-science) in all traditional knowledge – such as traditional navigation, medicinal remedies, and food preservation? This knowledge, acquired through observation and trial and error, as well as through supernatural explanation, along with the ways it may have helped to advance scientific or technological knowledge, is better placed in history of science lessons rather than in the science curriculum.

Science provides naturalistic explanations for physical and social phenomena. Its concepts refer to the theorised structures and properties of the physical world, its methods are those of hypothesis, testing and refutation, its procedures those of criticism and judgement.  The inclusion of cultural knowledge into the science curriculum will subvert the fundamental distinction, one acknowledged by mātauranga Māori scholars, between naturalistic science and supernaturalistic culture.

Ironically, decolonisation ideology is justified using the universal human rights argument for equity. But the equity case misrepresents the problem. As with all groups, it is not ethnic affiliation but class-related cultural practices that are the main predictors of educational outcomes. Māori children from professional families are not failing. Rather it is those, Māori and non-Māori alike, living in families experiencing hardship and not engaging in cognitive practices of abstract thinking and literacy development, who are most likely to fail at school. This is not inevitable. Education can make a difference to a child’s life chances but it requires all schools, Maori medium immersion and mainstream alike, to provide quality academic knowledge taught by expert teachers.

Te Hurihanganui’s claim that ‘the Blueprint is based on evidence of what works for Māori in education’ gives no indication that the evidence is seriously compromised. Are Maori students in full immersion Māori education (MME) more successful than those in mainstream schools? At first glance this claim does appear substantiated. In 2020, 83.7 percent of Māori students in MME attained NCEA Level 2 compared to 71.8 percent in English medium education. However the numbers of students in each school type reveal a different picture. According to 2021 figures, 8,056 (4.3 percent) of Māori students attended Māori immersion schools where 51 percent or more of the instruction is in the Māori language. Another 29,499 Māori students (15.7 percent) are in mixed medium education with varying degrees of Maori language immersion or instruction. A full 80 percent (150,318 Māori students) attend English language or mainstream schools.

Given the sizeable difference between the numbers of Māori students in mainstream schools and those in full and mixed immersion education combined, any comparison should be considered unreliable, even meaningless. In addition, a nuanced comparison would need to compare the NCEA Level 2 subjects taken by Māori students.  The extent of abstraction in a subject creates varying degrees of difficulty, something found, for example, in the difference between physics and communication studies

Do parents of Māori children want a decolonised cultural-based education system? Here too, the evidence suggests otherwise. Under 5 percent of Māori students attend full immersion education where over 50 percent of instruction is in the Māori language. Even the flagship kohanga reo is in long-term decline from a peak of 767 kohanga in 1996 to 434 in 2021.

The 1990 Education Act established kura kaupapa Māori recognising its founders’ aims – to increase Māori achievement, to contribute to the revival of the Māori language, and to produce bilingual and bicultural citizens for New Zealand.

However the citizenship aim, one based on the democratic principle of the universal human being, cannot be met by a decolonising agenda. The universal and secular principles of the 1877 Education Act were intended to create a collective consciousness – the People of New Zealand as the Act’s title states – for a racially and culturally diverse population.

The exemptions in the 1877 Act reveal a fledgling liberal culture, a mix of idealism and pragmatism now recognisable as a distinctively New Zealand character. Parents who objected to Protestant history lesssons could remove their children from class. Māori opposed to government provision were exempted from compulsion. Private and church schools were permitted and a pragmatic accommodation for the country’s climate and geography, and for the regular outbreaks of disease, can be seen in flexible attendance regulations.

Unlike authoritarian regimes, liberalism can tolerate some dissent. What it cannot tolerate is the removal of its very foundations – those principles of universalism and secularism that anchor democratic institutions into modern pluralist society. The separation of public and private, of society and community, makes room for both science and local culture. (The recent commonplace practice of using ‘community’ for ‘society’ is one of a number of indications that the separation is being undermined.) Valuing culture and devaluing science in a merger of the two fatally undermines the universalism and secularism that creates and maintains a cohesive society out of many ethnicities and cultures.

Decolonisation will indeed divide society into two groups – but not that of coloniser and colonised locked into the permanent oppressor-victim opposition used to justify ethno-nationalism. Instead one group will comprise those who receive an education in academic subjects. These young people will proceed to tertiary study with a sound understanding of science, mathematics, and the humanities. Their intelligence will be developed in the long-term and demanding engagement with this complex knowledge. It is to be hoped, though this cannot be assumed, that they will have the critical disposition required for democratic citizenship, one that is subversive of local culture and disdainful of ideology

The second group comprises those who remain restricted to the type of knowledge acquired from experience and justified in ideologies of local culture. Distrustful of academic knowledge as colonising and oppressive, ethnically-based cultural beliefs and practices will provide the community needed for social and psychological security. In this restricted world they are insiders. And as there are insiders, there must be outsiders – in traditionalist ideologies these are the colonists who are seen to have taken everything and given nothing. And yet the tragedy is that it is the cultural insiders who are to be the excluded ones – excluded from all the benefits that a modern education provides.

A revolution is coming. The government’s transformational policies for education make this clear. It will only be stopped by a re-commitment to academic knowledge for all New Zealand children, rich and poor alike, within a universal and secular education system. Colonisation is not the problem and decolonisation is not the solution.


Elizabeth Rata is a professor of education at the University of Auckland and a founding member (in 1987) of Te Komiti o Nga Kura Kaupapa Māori o Tamaki Mākaurau